As another millennial, I’m part of the Internet generation, the first of its kind- a 90s kid. If 90s kids don’t remember it, it probably doesn’t exist. While our obsessive pop culture disorder (or OPCD as per Cracked.com) generally covers everything under a broad spectrum, from cinema to the sciences, I am only moderately knowledgeable (I’ve done a little more than looked it up on Wikipedia) in the realm of music. Therefore, that is what I shall generally restrict this article to.
What do Lady Gaga, The Weekend, Maroon 5, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry have in common apart from the fact they there are contemporary pop sensations?
Most of their major hits were written by a Max Martin. For all the relative anonymity of the man himself, the list of people he has written for is a general who’s who of some of the best known and influential people in the music world today.
Trivia: Wikipedia says Martin is the songwriter with the third most number one singles on the charts (behind Paul McCartney and John Lennon) and is in second place for most number one hits (after George Martin).
The history of Pop music as it is known today finds its roots in post World War 2 America because of the relative economic boom that the country experienced. The generation of teenagers at that time was the first with disposable income (Sideways, “How to win an argument about Pop Music,” Youtube 9:05, July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OP7tSLwt7g. )
This was a generation of consumers who were open and willing to adopt to the latest in technology and had a knack for rebelling against the more dated sensibilities of their parents (sound familiar?) Then, comes a handsome man, with wicked moves, with a charisma and baritone to envy- The King himself, Elvis Presley.
Record labels at the time lapped him up. It wasn’t long before Elvis ruled the radio and women were throwing themselves and their underwear at him. Business was booming for the executives in the music business at the time and they would soon turn pop music into the machine of industry stagnation that it is today. The billboard hot 100 was essentially a chart of the highest selling products at the time. (Sideways, “How to win an argument about Pop Music,” Youtube 9:05, July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OP7tSLwt7g ).
That’s where pop culture comes in to an extent. As pop music began to grow and expand into the 70s, you had artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Queen, David Bowie, and the list goes on; splintering and further compartmentalising the different styles of Pop music. Listening to the music was closely followed by, wearing the right clothes, having the right attitude and subsequently, mixing with the right clique. You wouldn’t expect someone who listened to The Ramones to be hanging out behind the local place of worship. There is a point to be noted here, that regardless of what was happening in the rest of the world, pop was a predominantly white space.
In our own country, the situation at the time was vastly more nascent. Pop music had only reached our shores through travelling relatives and while there might have been a bustling underground scene, most of the mainstream audience existed in denial. Indian music had to be steeped in rich, Indian, “sanskaari” tradition. You had to do riyaaz in the mornings and sing about flowers and the birds and the bees, but only ever literally. There was little beyond the realm of bollywood music (which in turn was heavily derived from disco and Latin culture at the time). Not much has changed except perhaps, everything in bollywood today is an innuendo and perhaps the cringe inducing musical interludes have given way to a repetitive monotone chorus. Sometimes, I wish they’d put some “sanskaar” into the latest item song.
This was supposed to be informative but I feel like it’s turning into a rant. This is as good a point as any to perhaps switch over to the technicalities of Pop.
To begin with, pop music, via Max Martin or otherwise, is written to get people to dance to it. That is the be all and end all of it. That is why, you’ll seldom find a track that isn’t in the simplest of time signatures or in tempos outside of 120-140 bpm.
(For the uninitiated:- Time Signature is an indication of rhythm. In this case most everything can be counted in 4s I.e- 1234) Would you believe there exists a whole other world where music DOESN’T fit into that rhythmic pattern? You could also count in 5s and 7s or if you’re listening to Meshuggah or Dream Theater, think of a random 2 digit prime number, divide that by 4, add y, solve for x, add the date of your birth and multiply that by the times you wonder why you’re reading this sentence. Congratulations that is your time signature now.
Bpm is beats per minute. Go to your nearest pop music and play it. Count 1-2-3-4 with the beats. Congratulations, you have all the know-how you need to become a DJ now. You are free to download suitable software, match the bpms of two similar sounding songs, give yourself a cool name like DJ Sanskaari, press play and practice making heart signs for the audience.
For the initiated:-
Ever seen that video Axis of four chords? There’s this massive list of songs that are pretty much written on the same chords (two or more notes played together is a chord. Different chords played one after another make a progression. Same progression played endlessly for 3 minutes in a verse-chorus- verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song structure makes pop music).
vi- IV – I – V
Look at these numbers. Without going in too deep, let’s just say, this is a chord progression. This is the chord progression for songs like Zombie by The Cranberries or Despacito by Luis Fonzi. But if you take a look at most pop songs on the charts they’re just a shuffle of the same progression. A permutation combination of the same four chords. This gets even more apparent in country music where, based on an experiment on YouTube, you could string 6 top soundtrack songs together and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart at all.
That being said, there IS a significant disparity between pop music today and pop music before.
For example, The Beatles had 27 number 1 hits. And they used this progression only once in Let it Be. Similarly Max Martin has 22 number 1s and he really only did it one time (Rick Beato, “The four Chords that killed pop music,” Youtube 4:20, December 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuGt-ZG39cU)
To be honest, it isn’t really anybody’s fault. It’s mostly the zeitgeist of the millennials. Don’t blame pop music for sounding the same. Blame yourselves for consuming it because that’s what the industry believes you want. And you aren’t doing enough to prove them otherwise.
On a more personal level, as of the writing this article, I have covered 260 songs from various genres on my instagram account(@deep.phoenix). The fact that most pop songs sound the same, just makes my job easier because i don’t have to put in more than five minutes of work to play these songs every night. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying, “oh you can stuff your modern pop music, give me some of that sweet sweet Floyd or Zeppelin” or “I’m cooler than you because I like old music”. No. Liking or disliking pop music doesn’t matter anymore than liking or disliking pineapple on pizza. And for the love of all things unholy, please stop saying “oh I listen to all sorts of music.”
Written by Deep Phoenix